The Alliance of American Football has done many things right leading up to its debut on Saturday night.
The league is run by both a TV executive, Charlie Ebersol, and a football executive, Bill Polian. It forged a relationship with the NFL to be a sort of minor league or developmental league for the NFL and let its players move up to the NFL.
Also, it launched at the right time of year, one week after the Super Bowl when viewers are still hungry for more football. Past alternative leagues have either tried to go head-to-head with the NFL or launched in the spring when sports fans are thinking about baseball, the NBA playoffs, and golf.
In its debut night last night, @theaaf beat the NBA on ABC in head-to-head overnight ratings:
AAF Games (2 games, 1 per market): 2.1
Houston-OKC game: 2.0
— AAF Stats (@AAF_Stats) February 10, 2019
And, importantly, it secured the rights to be on a major network, CBS — as well as the NFL Network, TNT, and CBS Sports Network.
These moves all seemed to pay off in the debut of the AAF Saturday night as it won the night in the TV ratings.
CBS broadcast the opening night games in prime time at 8 p.m. featuring the Orlando Apollos against the Atlanta Legends as well as the San Antonio Commanders versus the San Diego Fleet.
The Apollos, coached by Steve Spurrier, won 40-6, while the Commanders, coached by Mike Riley, won 15-6.
Steve Spurrier just ran the Philly Special in an AAF game!
— ESPN (@espn) February 10, 2019
The games drew 2.9 million viewers, which won the time slot for CBS, reported Bleacher Report. It even beat ABC’s national broadcast of the NBA’s Houston Rockets against the Oklahoma City Thunder, which drew 2.5 million viewers.
Definitely a promising start for the new league.
The real key will be if the numbers maintain or grow in the coming weeks.
— SportsTVRatings (@SportsTVRatings) February 10, 2019
When the WWE and NBC launched the XFL in 2001, it did huge ratings its first night with a rating of 9.5. But in Week 2, it lost half its audience and by Week 3, it lost two-thirds. By the end of its first and only season, ratings were down to 1.8.
For the rest of the regular season, the AAF will be on TNT, NFL Network, CBS Sports Network, according to Pro Football Talk.
Being on those networks, the AAF probably won’t get the same ratings as it did on opening night. But the games return to CBS for the playoffs in April.
Charlie Ebersol, the son of Dick Ebersol, who helped found the XFL with Vince McMahon in 2001, is taking the long view.
“Our business model doesn’t require Day 1 success,” said Ebersol, co-founder of the AAF, reported Yahoo Finance.
“The thing we didn’t want to do is what my dad and Vince [McMahon] did 17 years ago (with the XFL), which was start hammering promos seven months before the XFL,” Ebersol told Yahoo Finance.
“You pound people with it too much and at a certain point in time their expectation is so out of whack… My dad’s favorite story to tell about the XFL is they did testing the week of the first game, and something like 60 percent of people answered that they thought defensive players would be allowed to bring folding chairs on the field to hit the offense with, based on the promos.”
Polian, the former GM of the Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers, and Indianapolis Colts, said success is ultimately about putting a good product on the field.
“We’ve done this in nine months because of so many great former NFL people who are excited to do it, excited to be in it,” Polian told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
“We started with nothing, and we (opened) it up on Saturday with eight teams playing what I think will be pretty good football. That’s a credit to the people involved. We could not have done it if we had not had quality former NFL people.”
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